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The spirit versus the letter

Published: 
Wednesday, April 22, 2015

As the political parties prepare for the 2015 general election, a couple of issues raise questions about commitment to accountability. 

First, Speaker Wade Mark having made no move to stop Tobago East MP Vernella Alleyne-Toppin raising deeply personal and offensive questions surrounding the circumstances of the birth of Dr Rowley in the House, has subsequently ruled that the floor was open to wide-ranging discussion in support of the no-confidence motion brought by the government against the Opposition Leader.

The result was Ms Alleyne-Toppin’s distasteful statement is now part of the Parliamentary record. By allowing Ms Alleyne-Toppin’s statement to stand, Speaker Mark missed an opportunity to lay down a marker for what constitutes proper parliamentary exchange. 

By the letter of the law concerning parliamentary privilege, Ms Alleyne-Toppin could say what she said. The spirit of parliamentary decorum says otherwise. It is a shame that the speaker did not invoke the latter.

The other development concerns the questions raised by a sharp increase in legal fees paid by the Attorney General’s office, now confirmed to have exceeded $400m. 

Prior experience in public office brought two former AGs from different sides of the political fence into unusual collaboration on this question. John Jeremie and Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj recommended a police investigation into the legal fees paid by the Office of the then Attorney General Anand Ramlogan during his four-year tenure. 

The figures attributed to legal fees during the last four years, they say, represented at least a doubling of the budgets they had worked with.

Mr Ramlogan defended the fees, noting that the legal teams had won more than 95 per cent of the cases in which lawyers were retained and claiming that four civil cases that were filed stood to recover close to $2 billion for T&T. Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj fired his own broadside on the weekend calling on the police to investigate his concerns, first raised almost a decade ago, that millions of dollars in state legal work had been paid to law firms close to both Mr Maharaj and Mr Jeremie during their service as AG. 

Both have since said that the issues had been raised and investigated before and that they welcome any police attention.

In the face of changed and changing information on the total and detail of the fees, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said it was a discrepancy, and ruled out an investigation, saying—correctly—that there had been no allegations of fraud. But the honourable Prime Minister may have missed the point, which was not the legality of the fee payments, but whether the level of spending could be justified. It is public money. 

The level of spending had increased sharply, and had raised eyebrows to the extent that a former AG from her own party called for an investigation.

She could have and should have taken the view that, like justice, accountability must be seen to be done as well. 

An independent forensic audit is a reasonable request, and it is hoped that Mrs Persad-Bissessar would revisit her position. 

The Prime Minister has promised a more fulsome and detailed response from Mr Nicholas, but she, like Speaker Mark, may have missed an opportunity to go by the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

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